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    Unilever imagery superimposed on a tea plantation

    The Corporate Parent

    The collapse of corporate social responsibility at Unilever

    By Maria Hengeveld

    May 1, 2021
    • Peter McCallum

      Unilever in 2007 was a company with HQ in the Netherlands and the UK. It has only recently decided to have its HQ in the UK. Polman was Dutch, Hengeveld does not sound British. Jope is British, or Scottish to be precise. What happen to the women and others was horrific and I find it more difficult than Hengeveld to judge who was responsible. But why is there no mention of the joint headquarters. Why was the case not brought in the Dutch courts? This feels like biased reporting.

    This article was originally published on December 15, 2020.

    The Cambridge Dictionary defines a patriarch as a “powerful and usually older man in charge of a family” or as a “male leader of a society in which men hold power.” Patriarchs are a diverse bunch; they all look, sound, and speak in their own peculiar ways, and they hold different visions of how to rule their households, ranging from the tyrannical to the compassionate. The benevolent patriarch takes his caring duties seriously and feels responsible for his family’s well-being. He listens to them, takes their hopes and dreams seriously, and wants them to thrive. But he does not negotiate on equal terms with those under his authority. Because at the end of the day, it is he who sets the terms of well-being for his people; it is he who decides what his caring responsibilities entail. What the benevolent patriarch has in common with his more tyrannical counterpart is that, when push comes to shove, he is not accountable to those under him.

    London-based consumer-goods giant Unilever – known for its Lipton tea and household brands such as Dove, Knorr, and TreSemmé – is one of the most involved parents in town. It, like many other global corporations, has taken on the rhetoric of paternal responsibility for its workers. If there is an element of fatherhood that naturally serves as a pattern for the highest authority, this rhetoric is not surprising: “parent companies” like Unilever oversee and supervise subsidiary companies scattered around the globe. The governance of the corporation thus, in many ways, supervenes the governance of the nation-states in which it operates. And with plantations, palm oil forests, and factories around the world and a global workforce of over 150,000 people serving 2.5 billion consumers, Unilever’s corporate family is both huge and cosmopolitan.

    It’s embraced its role. Over the last decade, Unilever has positioned itself, through advertising, philanthropy, and other forms of public relations, as the world’s leader in megacorporate social responsibility. Under the leadership of Paul Polman – the Dutchman who headed up the company from 2008 to 2018 – the corporation successfully cultivated a very distinct branding message, one that came to define the Unilever brand worldwide. It was the image of Unilever as a benevolent company that puts ethics, or “purpose,” before profits and proves that companies can “do well by doing good.”

    Polman made women’s well-being in particular a cornerstone of Unilever’s “corporate purpose.” More than once he promised to use his “voice to encourage sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers to pledge their support and take action” for the women in their families. He called on fellow CEOs to join his “movement” for a better, fairer, and more woman-friendly world. When the Scotsman Alan Jope took over as CEO in 2019, he vowed to honor Unilever’s woman-friendly track, promising to “galvanize businesses including our own, to drive gender equality forward.” The company has gained much praise from influential United Nations agencies, human rights groups, and women’s rights groups for its ethical leadership and its proactive approach toward safeguarding the rights and well-being of the more vulnerable workers in its supply chain.

    The threats to their well-being, in Jope’s view, appear to come primarily from the men in their lives: from husbands and fathers. The vision of women’s well-being that Unilever and its partner NGOs promote is one which focuses on freeing them from dependence on men. The company describes itself as an “intersectional” leader of a movement of feminist global corporations. As Jope puts it, “the immutable laws of intersectionality mean that the better the job that we do for women of color, the better chance we have of progressing gender equality everywhere.” Having women as part of the supply chain will be good for the whole society, because women workers “re-invest 90 percent of their incomes back into their families,” Jope contends, whereas men, more selfish by nature or nurture, use most of it up by themselves. In the CEO’s theory of women-driven development, then, it is by having a direct relationship with the company that these women will be protected.

    Unilever’s supply chain involves supplier and distribution networks of “millions of smallholder farmers, distributors, and retailers, many of whom are women,” according to the company’s elaborate Corporate Social Responsibility document. Unilever, this CSR policy explains, sees the “empowerment” of these women – “promoting safety, providing up-skilling, and expanding opportunities in our retail value chain” – as foundational to the company’s mission.

    Good supervision, in corporations like this, is important, because if one of the subsidiaries misbehaves – by getting embroiled in a scandal or abusing its workers – the parent company takes the (reputational) hit.

    It is more than simply a matter of PR. The “duty of care” principle of corporate law in the United Kingdom and elsewhere holds that directors of a corporation are responsible for safeguarding employees from harm while they are engaged in its work. Being a good corporate parent is not just a good idea. It’s the law.

    But this is complicated by the fact that corporations such as Unilever operate very frequently through non-UK subsidiaries: Unilever Tea Kenya, for example, runs vast tea plantations on behalf of its parent company. Under UK law, there are only limited circumstances under which the duty of care of the UK parent company would extend to the employees of subsidiaries: one key condition is that the parent company must play an active role in the daily operations of the subsidiary.

    In the CEO’s theory of women-driven development, it is by having a direct relationship with the company that these women will be protected.

    Unilever’s brand is that of superinvolved parent, one who goes beyond the minimum requirements of the law to protect women workers and support their thriving. But when the opportunity to dodge responsibility presents itself, it quickly takes the “hands off” posture of an absentee father, hiding behind its corporate structure. The women it claims to care about the most confront it with their vision of what good care, “empowerment,” and ethical leadership entail – and it turns away.

    Two of these women are Mary and Anne, former Unilever tea pluckers from Kenya whom I recently interviewed, whose experiences illustrate what happens when a corporate patriarch refuses to take the responsibility that comes with his power, when corporate parenthood fails. Their story begins on the last Sunday of December, 2007, when both Anne and Mary were working on Unilever’s plantations near the town of Kericho in the Southern Rift Valley. Their testimony on what happened that night, and the months that followed, is supported by over two hundred pages of testimony from colleagues and other witnesses.

    The outcome of Kenya’s presidential election had been announced that day. Things were tense. And in the evening, hundreds of men from Kericho flooded into the plantation, attacking Mary’s and Anne’s families and, allegedly, thousands of other workers with machetes, knives, and other weapons. The attackers – some of whom were their own Unilever colleagues, according to witness testimonies of survivors – killed at least eleven plantation residents. They looted and burned thousands of homes on the plantation. And they raped at least fifty-six women, including Anne, Mary, and Mary’s daughter; the women were raped in front of their children. They raped Mary’s husband as well, in front of his son. Her husband and daughter died of their injuries a few weeks later. Unknown numbers of others were maimed.

    The attacks weren’t limited to the Kericho plantation. The outcome of the election led to violence across the country and left an estimated 1,300 people dead. In 2015, Mary, Anne, and 216 other Kenyan tea workers filed a case against Unilever Tea Kenya and its British parent company in London’s High Court for breaching their duty of care on that day in 2007. The violence, they say, was entirely foreseeable. Their evidence? In part, that it was in fact foreseen. “Whilst management took precautions to improve security around their own houses and key installations on the Plantation,” one manager testified, “they did not do anything to improve security around the tea workers’ camps. And when the violence broke out, management hired planes to ferry senior staff off the Plantation at the airfield on the James Finley Estate.”

    Unilever claimed that it was not responsible in any way for what happened. Its London office, the company held, had no “duty of care” toward the Kenyan workers.

    Company Town

    To understand what happened, we need to go back to that plantation in 2007.

    Stretching over 13,000 hectares, Unilever’s Kericho plantations were vast and hilly, and at the time home to roughly 100,000 residents: about 20,000 domestic migrant workers and 80,000 of their family members. Unilever Tea Kenya has owned and run the tea estates since the late 1920s. The Republic of Kenya, by contrast, has only existed since 1964. A Unilever manager once told a journalist that running the plantations was “like running a town” and it’s not hard to see why. The plantations offered onsite health clinics, shops, schools, and social facilities. Many workers led their entire lives on the tea estates, and rarely even left the plantations.

    Mary is one of them. She was born there, grew up, got married, and raised two children on the estate. Anne’s two teenage daughters and eleven-year-old son never knew another home: it is where they went to school, where they went to church. The two women are among the roughly 40,000 plantation residents who are ethnic Kisiis, originally from the neighboring county of that name some two hours away. The other 60,000 residents were a diverse mix, including Kenyans of at least a handful of different ethnicities.

    Anne and Mary were both piece workers, paid by the kilo of tea leaves they pick: ten Kenyan shillings per kilo, or about $0.09. They often worked seven days a week, 6:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night.

    When they needed items or services not provided by Unilever, they went to Kericho, the town neighboring the plantation. Unlike Unilever’s “inter-ethnic quasi-town,” as one commentator put it, Kericho was populated primarily by Kalenjins, who viewed the area as their homeland.

    Some among them viewed the ethnic Kisiis and other migrant workers on the tea estates as “foreigners” and regarded them with suspicion. Unilever’s plantations were much more diverse than surrounding Kericho, but they nonetheless reflected this ethnic divide: almost all managers on the plantations were of Kalenjin descent, whereas the Kisiis worked primarily as tea pluckers.

    This stratification became obvious in the runup to the 2007 presidential elections, when tensions between the groups grew. Kisiis were perceived to support incumbent Mwai Kibaki, who is a Kikuyu. The local Kalenjins overwhelmingly supported Raila Odinga, a Luo.

    According to the witness testimonies submitted to the court in London many years later, Unilever managers openly rallied for Odinga on their plantations, and exercised pressure on Kisii and other workers to back him too.

    Being a good corporate parent is not just a good idea. It’s the law.

    It was one of many manifestations of growing ethnic hostility toward Kisiis and other minorities on the plantations in the weeks leading up to the election. Kisii workers found leaflets on the tea estates with slogans such as “The Spots Will Be Cleared” – “outsiders,” that is, “will be removed” – and “Foreigners Go Home.” Pro-Odinga colleagues threatened Kisiis that they would be “driven out” if Kibaki won the election, and hinted at the possibility of violence, according to witness testimonies and my interviews with Mary and Anne.

    Both women said they had been worried about their safety in the weeks leading up to the election, but assumed that Unilever would take steps to protect them. Some of their colleagues reported the threats to their managers and team leaders and asked for a leave of absence to go to Kisii for the duration of the elections. According to their witness testimonies, they thought they’d be safer there. But, said the workers, their managers turned down their requests for leave, blandly reassuring them that nothing would happen. Some managers even instructed the concerned workers to lobby and vote for Odinga.

    When, in the early evening of December 30, Kibaki was declared the winner of the election, hundreds of allegedly local men – many of whom had been watching the election outcome on televisions on the plantation – picked up their weapons.

    No one knows how many people were assaulted, maimed, raped, and killed in those days, but court records show that at least 3,000 homes on the plantation were looted and 2,000 destroyed; tens of thousands of residents fled. Some claimants heard their attackers scream “this isn’t your land,” according to court records. The plantations would only re-open six months later. During this period, Unilever put the workers on unpaid leave, even though many of them had just been robbed of all their earthly belongings and had to shoulder immense hospital bills.

    In their witness testimonies, many victims recognized their attackers as Unilever colleagues, identifying them by name or by their role on the plantations. When, in mid-2008, they returned to the plantations, some of their attackers were still working there. Their managers told them not to protest if they saw people with their stolen belongings. In lieu of the investigation of particular crimes, trials, or justice, each victim received a flat fee of 12,000 Kenyan shillings – around $150 – from Unilever, they told the court. Anne, who never returned to the plantations, kept the letter Unilever Kenya sent her at the time. In the letter, which she has sent to me, her employer praises the leadership of its English parent, suggesting that the head office played an active role in dealing with the aftermath of the massacre.

    “On behalf of the entire Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd family, we thank Unilever for their understanding, material and moral support and we hope that this timely gesture will go a long way to bring normalcy back to our employees and their families.”

    This money – equivalent to a little more than one month’s wages – was all she ever got from the company, said Anne.

    Unilever insists it compensated all workers who eventually returned to the plantations1 with new furniture and cash (though it won’t say how much) and that it offered their families free counseling and medical care.

    The women say the attacks have ruined their lives, robbed them of a future. They hold Unilever responsible. As Mary put it, “the company is so big, they should have protected us.” They were entirely dependent on the company for their survival: this was, effectively, their government. Had they left without permission, they could have lost their jobs and what little stability they had. And what they wanted was not even the “empowerment” or “up-skilling” that the Unilever CSR policy promises, it was the very basics: they just wanted their families to be safe.

    Unilever imagery superimposed on an image of a hand picking tea

    Corporate Social Responsibility

    When, in 2015, they and 216 other survivors got in touch with the London law firm Leigh Day, Mary and Anne decided to hold not just their employer, Unilever Tea Kenya, to account, but its parent company in England too. Both companies, the workers contended, had breached their duty of care by failing to protect them. They were backed by four former Unilever Kenya managers, who also submitted witness evidence to the court.

    As legal expert Tara Van Ho explained to me, under UK law, a parent company is usually only liable for the actions of its subsidiaries if, among other things, it plays an active role in the daily operations of the subsidiary, or makes decisions for the subsidiary in a particular area. So for the claimants to convince the judge to accept jurisdiction, and allow them to sue Unilever in the United Kingdom, they had to show that the London office had played such an active “parenting” role, especially in the areas of health, safety, and crisis management. Mary and Anne had no doubt this was the case, they told me, as they had witnessed frequent visits from headquarter staff and watched them walk around the tea estates, checking to see if everything was OK.

    The former Unilever managers, in their testimonies, explained the head office’s involvement in much more depth. The parent company they described to the court wasn’t only closely involved with the safety protocols of its Kenyan subsidiary (by cascading down central safety policies and then closely monitoring their implementation) but even made it compulsory for them to strictly follow London’s safety rules. Not following London’s rules could get managers in Kenya into trouble, they said. In the words of one such manager, the parent company’s “checklists and detailed policies had to be complied with or an employee would be dismissed or face some other sanction.” This is, of course, in line with Unilever’s stated CSR policy and spirit of “purposeful” leadership. It was doing precisely what its PR said it did. It’s simply that it did not do it well, it did not take responsibility afterwards, and it doesn’t want to be held responsible for both of these failures.

    The women say the attacks have ruined their lives, robbed them of a future. They hold Unilever responsible.

    To convince the court that Unilever had, as workers and managers said, played such a controlling role and thus shared liability for the failure to protect workers from the violence, the plaintiffs requested Unilever to share its crisis management policies. Unilever insisted that the Kenyan subsidiary alone was responsible for the company’s safety policies. That subsidiary did what it could, said the UK company: once the violence broke out, staff called the police. The company refused to share the crisis management policies that the ex-managers had referred to.

    Unilever insisted that, if the workers wanted to sue the company for breaching their duty of care, they should do so in Kenya, not in London. According to the survivors, however, pursuing legal action in Kenya put them at risk of revenge attacks, especially upon those who still worked for the company. Moreover, getting legal counsel in Kenya would be much too expensive, said the victims, who are either poor or outright destitute. Unilever suggested, in response, that the survivors “band together” and “raise funds from friends and family.”

    The company also initially denied that its own workers had participated in the attacks. When I asked company spokespeople about it, however, they didn’t repeat this position. Instead, they refused to comment.

    The corporation’s main line of defense was that it could not have foreseen or prepared for the attacks. But according to the four former managers who testified in support of the workers, this wasn’t true. One estate manager, whose statement is corroborated by two others, is worth quoting in depth:

    There was anticipation that there would be unrest and that the Plantation could be invaded. There would be meetings with the senior management, including [the Chairman] where we discussed the need to secure company property, factories, machinery, stores, power stations and management houses during the election period. . . . However there was no discussion about the security of the tea pluckers and other workers. Measures were taken by the company to secure important installations (such as power stations and factories) with increased Administrative Police and more patrol vehicles allocated. No thought was given to increasing the security of the residential camps in order to protect the workers.

    It would not have been difficult to ask the Government to deploy policemen or the General Service Unit [a government military unit trained in subduing violence] from other areas of Kenya before the attacks took place. I believe this would have easily repelled the attackers, who only had crude weaponry. [The company] could also have advised management to automatically permit leave to minority tribes who were at risk. What I find shocking is that they increased security around important installations, including management housing, but they did not consider the need to do so for their own workers.

    The London head office may have been far removed from all of this, but it should certainly have known that the migrant workers belonged to ethnic groups at risk for violence: international media – from the BBC and Al Jazeera to the New York Times and Reuters – had reported on the threats for weeks.

    A former estate manager told the court that he believes Unilever never even assessed “whether Unilever responded properly to the attacks.” There was, to his knowledge, no substantial after-action investigation, no accounting.

    Duty of Care

    In the fall of 2018, a UK judge denied the survivors standing in England; the Kenyans had not sufficiently proven that London HQ had, as they claimed, played an active parenting role. There was no duty of care toward the workers. Mary, whose only route to reparations was now shattered, recalled being devastated by the news. With a group of other survivors, she wrote a letter to then-CEO Polman, pleading for him to meet with them and hear them out. Polman never answered. Neither did he answer my recent request for comments.

    In the midst of the legal dispute, he had proudly proclaimed that for Unilever, “the safety of women working across our supply chain is a top priority [and we help] them to be productive at work, support their families and fuel their economies.” After Polman’s resignation in 2018, Alan Jope has continued these branding efforts.

    “Women are our main consumers,” Unilever’s website reads, “and we owe a lot of our success to them. So we’ve been working hard to help women across our business fully unleash their potential.” Among these efforts are advertising campaigns to change “old-fashioned gender stereotypes and norms.”

    “Every time you scrub up with Dove, wake up with Lipton, or clean up with Persil, you’re supporting ‘fempowerment’ by helping girls and women unlock their amazing potential,” the website assures us. And beginning in 2017, Unilever has worked with UN Women on a campaign called Unstereotype Alliance, which “aims to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes by using advertising as a force for good . . . we’re striving to smash negative gender stereotypes, promote self-esteem, and make a world in which every woman and girl can create the kind of life she wishes to lead.”

    According to Van Ho, this behavior is far from surprising. “What we see in the Unilever case,” she says, “is what we often see in these kinds of cases: companies proclaim to the world – to their shareholders, their consumers, and their employees – that they take care to protect human rights, labor rights, and the environment throughout their corporate group and their supply chains. As soon as they’re challenged, though, the companies hide behind laws that are intentionally designed to shield them from liability.”

    The reason why the actions of a supposedly caring parent like Unilever differ so little from less socially involved companies is systemic, Van Ho says. “We have a legal system,” she explains, “in England and elsewhere, that encourages companies to claim they’re good corporate citizens without requiring them to do any of the actual work necessary to be good corporate citizens. Companies exploit this. The work of being a good corporate citizen includes making things right when they’ve failed to act appropriately, but Unilever isn’t doing that, and because of how it’s litigated this case, they aren’t even giving the courts an opportunity to decide whether they acted appropriately.”

    This, of course, is the privilege of the corporate patriarch: Polman and Jope show that they’re accountable to no one, and have a right to keep their households as secret as they wish. They decide what their duty of care entails.

    “That’s why we can no longer allow businesses to decide for themselves when they will be good citizens or not,” said Van Ho. “We should no longer ask companies to do better; we need regulation to require them to do so.”

    What solidarity do those at the bottom need in order to empower themselves on their own terms?

    Today, Mary and Anne are trying their luck with the UN in the hope that they can get the attention that will force Jope to the table. Their leverage is the threat of brand damage; it’s the only thing they have left.

    Over the last several years, Unilever has caused Unilever Kenya to offload many of its tea plantations, preferring to deal yet more with subcontractors. Comparatively fewer of its tea-pluckers are now direct employees even of the Kenyan company. That’s one more layer of protection, of deniability, for the UK company, one more place to hide.

    In a world of global multinational corporations whose governance touches many more people than the governments under which they hold corporate charters, we need to think carefully about where the buck stops. Who has the care of the common good? Who rules? How can these corporate families be democratized; what solidarity do those at the bottom need in order to empower themselves on their own terms, rather than those of their bosses? Whether the answers lie in co-ops, binding UN treaties for corporations, or global unions – or a mix of all that and more – is an important area for debate. What is perfectly clear is that we cannot continue to rely on corporate self-accountability as governance, or PR as an accurate source of information. Good corporate parenthood won’t begin with supposedly enlightened CEOs, philanthropic gestures, or top-down “empowerment” journeys: it begins when those under their rule have agency.

    For more on this story, please see Hengeveld's piece in The Nation, published late January 2021.


    1. This is the group that according to the company represents 93 percent of the total number of people who are affected, but it won’t say what the total is and whether this total includes rape victims.
    Contributed By MariaHengeveld Maria Hengeveld

    Maria Hengeveld is a writer and a PhD student at Cambridge University.

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